Gavel Grab

Ex-Chief Justice Cobb Urges Merit Selection Nationwide

Former Chief Justice Cobb of Alabama

Former Chief Justice Cobb
of Alabama

Former Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb of Alabama, where appellate judges are chosen in partisan elections, called on Friday for all 50 states to use a system of judicial selection that ensures fair and impartial courts, and she said merit selection is the best approach.

“I truly believe that what we need is a transparent, diverse, merit selection committee established in every single state,” she said to applause in a keynote address at Justice at Stake’s 2015 Fair Courts State Summit. These committees would be “well balanced, have lay people as well as lawyers, have Democrats, Republicans, and Independents,” and diversity in geography and “every other category,” she said, and they would screen interested candidates and make recommendations of those who are most qualified.

While she would prefer that a state’s chief justice then appoint a judge from the finalists’ list, it likely would be more pragmatic for the governor to do so, she added. Cobb preferred that this selection system also include retention (up-or-down) elections when judges seek a new term.

Cobb said in response to a question that she believed such a diverse merit committee would offer “the best way to have our appellate courts look like the state they are in.” She noted that 26 to 27 percent of Alabama’s population is African American, and yet the entire appellate bench is white, and Republican. “It does not look like Alabama,” she said.

Earlier this year Cobb provided a striking first-person account of judicial election campaigning and fundraising in a Politico piece headlined, “I Was Alabama’s Top Judge. I’m Ashamed of What I Had to Do to Get There: How Money is Ruining America’s Courts.” Her outspoken approach and personal tales of what a judge faces today — her house was once firebombed, and her election to the Alabama Supreme Court in 2006 was the most costly in America that year — have helped draw news media attention to issues involved with protecting fair and impartial courts.

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